William Shakespeare Race

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(Shakespearean Criticism)


Contemporary critical discussion of Shakespeare's works has frequently focused on the subject of race, particularly how racial “others” are represented in his dramas. Many commentators have focused on the importance of achieving a clear consideration of how Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporaries understood the term “race.” Generally, scholars have observed that Shakespeare employed the word “race” in a genealogical sense, referring to noble bloodlines and royal succession. Nevertheless, many contemporary critics have located race as a central site of conflict in several of Shakespeare's works, including Othello, The Merchant of Venice, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest, and Titus Andronicus. To varying degrees, each of these works confronts the tensions between white, Christian Europeans, and cultural outsiders—blacks, Jews, Muslims, and Indians. In examining these conflicts, critics have generally argued that while Shakespeare presents an array of stereotypes, in many cases he succeeds in transcending these limited perceptions and offers a complex, if not always balanced, depiction of racial interaction.

In Othello and The Merchant of Venice, the dark-skinned Othello and Jewish Shylock dominate their respective plays—works pervaded by the drama of racial difference. While racial antagonism drives the plot of these powerful works, other plays approach the subject of race less directly, exploring the clash of cultures as an important motif. Among these works, Titus Andronicus features a significant element of racial discrimination, centered on the figure of Aaron. A black-skinned Moor, Aaron represents, on a superficial level, the Renaissance association of the color black with evil. Several critics, including Edward T. Washington (1995) and Jeannette S. White (1997), assert that Shakespeare's Aaron surmounts this stereotype, particularly in light of his compassionate love for his child. An ambiguous character, according to Washington, Aaron offers an evil exterior that masks his deeply hidden virtues.

Modern critics have also found the link between race and gender particularly intriguing in several of Shakespeare's plays. Lorie Jerrell Leininger (1980) observes the analogy between Prospero's oppression of his daughter Miranda and of his racially distinct slave Caliban in The Tempest. Leininger discusses Caliban's qualities as a lascivious Vice-figure who stands in contrast to Miranda and her inherent virtue. Kim F. Hall (1995) further explores the concept of a sexualized threat posed by a racial “other,” discussing Caliban's attempted rape of Miranda and the danger to Roman imperial culture intimated by the sexually potent African queen Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra. Joyce Green MacDonald (1996) follows a similar line of inquiry by probing the symbolic import of a highly sexualized, black-skinned Cleopatra as an emblem of corruption and lustful desire.

Twentieth-century study of cultural imperialism has also proved a useful point of departure for the interpretation of Shakespeare's late drama, The Tempest, which has elicited a number of racially-inspired, anticolonial readings. Rob Nixon (1987) surveys the play's appropriation by African and Caribbean intellectuals of the postcolonial period, who have found in the racially-charged relationship between Prospero and Caliban a strong condemnation of European imperialism. This critical exploration is furthered by Jyotsna G. Singh (1996), who examines Caliban's recasting by modern proponents of decolonization as a cultural prototype of the oppressed New World revolutionary. Richard Takaki (1992) analyzes Caliban's connection to American history in the early age of English colonial expansion, associating Shakespeare's depiction of Caliban with Renaissance reports of “savages” in the Americas. Furthermore, Barbara Fuchs (1997) expands colonial interpretations of The Tempest to view in historical context the racial threats perceived by English imperialists in Ireland and...

(The entire section is 94,209 words.)